Design for Giving: Architects Find Pro Bono Pays Off Credit: Architects discussing pro bono project image via Shutterstock

It's one more sign that the economy is improving: architects and designers are discovering that putting their skills to work for the public good makes bottom-line sense, a new survey shows. More than 1,100 firms ranging from single-person shops to the largest design firms such as Gensler and HOK have pledged a minimum of 1 percent of their billable hours to pro bono service.

The 1% Program is an initiative of Public Architecture, a national nonprofit organization. Since 2005, four surveys have queried architecture and design firms about their participation in the program.

"This latest survey underscores the evolution of pro bono service in the design profession," said John Peterson, founder and president of Public Architecture." Project expectations are rising; leadership buy-in is increasing; and pro bono is becoming a fundamental part of practice."

Contributing 1 percent of billable hours to the initiative is just table stakes for many of the firms, the survey found. More than one-third of participating firms reported devoting 5 percent or more of their time to pro bono service over the past year; 14 percent of firms contribute more than 10 percent of their time.

The three most important variables in selecting pro bono projects are social relevance, design opportunity and capacity to further the client's mission. The majority of pro bono work that firms took on came from existing clients.

Community impact and better project opportunities are the biggest factors that contribute to firms’ pro bono work.

Financial constraints and available staff time are the greatest obstacles to engaging in more pro bono work, while decision-maker buy-in and employee interest became much less of a limiting factor since the last survey in 2009.

Arts and culture are the most desirable nonprofit service areas followed by civic/public space, which nearly ties in with environmental/sustainability work.

"Beyond the satisfaction that comes from working on projects that align with their firm’s values, designers report the benefits of doing pro bono work from a business perspective," said Amy Ress, The 1% Program Manager. "It’s no longer a question of just giving back. Firms are now demanding more from their pro bono work — whether to expand to new markets, to build community relations, or serve in staff development."

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.